NABsys Secures $4M First Round to Develop Electronic DNA Sequencing

5/5/09

NABsys, a Providence, RI-based startup focused on advanced DNA sequencing technology, has raised $4 million in a Series A round of financing intended to help it develop a novel approach of using electronics to potentially sequence the human genome quicker and less expensively than available methods. The firm, which was expected to reveal the closing of the new financing this morning, is among a host of companies and academic groups around the world in hot pursuit of transforming the historically time-consuming and costly process of sequencing DNA into methods that make the technology fast and cheap enough to be used more routinely in healthcare.

Providence venture firm Point Judith Capital led the new round, which included investments from previous seed-round backers such as the Slater Technology Fund, a state of Rhode Island-funded venture group, according to NABsys. As part of the financing, Gina Raimondo, a general partner at Point Judith, is joining the board of directors at NABsys. The infusion of private capital also builds on more than $1 million in grant funding the startup and its inventors at Brown University were awarded in 2007 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

A major theme in the field of genetic sequencing has been to reduce the cost of sequencing an entire genome to $1,000—a scientific goal that’s been dubbed the “$1,000 Genome.” In New England, firms such as Cambridge, MA-based Helicos BioSciences (NASDAQ:HLCS) and Roche-owned 454 Life Sciences, of Branford, CT, have already commercialized sequencing machines that have helped close part of the gap between a whole-genome sequencing cost of more than a $1 million just several years ago to the $1,000 goal. Helicos, for example, says its machines can sequence an entire genome for less than $100,000. Now NABsys aims to close the gap even further—and even eclipse the $1,000 target with a sequencing system that could potentially sequence a person’s DNA for less than $100 in under an hour, company president and CEO Barrett Bready tells me.

“All of the stuff that we are doing here is with an eye toward having a clinically relevant tool,” Bready says. “In our minds, that means something with the speed and cost to be used routinely in clinical care, but most importantly the accuracy.”

NABsys calls its approach “electronic, solid-state DNA sequencing.” In the process, DNA fragments are supposed to flow into nano-sized pores in a silicon chip. As the molecules of DNA pass through the pores, the system detects changes in the electrical current caused by probes attached to the DNA. The company is developing algorithms to reconstruct the data, generated from the electronic detection of multiple DNA fragments, into the sequence of a whole genome. (NABsys shows how the technology works in two videos found on its website.)

Many commercial sequencing systems rely on optical readings to record the sequence of DNA. Yet NABsys believes that the use of electronic detection will produce more accurate information because electronic detection is inherently more sensitive than optical detection, Bready says. Another potential advantage of the NABsys technology, he notes, is that it does not require polymerase enzymes and other materials that can drive up the cost and impact the accuracy of sequencing. The solid-state element of the technology involves the use of materials and fabrication methods already developed for the semiconductor industry, according to the company.

Still, NABsys is currently working on its first prototype, and Bready says that the system is two years away from commercial research use. In a clinical setting, potential uses of the technology could include informing doctors which treatments are likely to be effective in certain patients, given what is known about a patient’s genetics.

“Solid-state, nanopore technology theoretically sounds to be a wonderful solution in many regards, [but] the question is can they get it working fully,” says Marc Hodosh, president of the TEDMED healthcare conference (and an Xconomist), who previously ran the $10 million Archon X-Prize for Genomics. Nevertheless, he says, “I think these guys [at NABsys] are still very much in the race for the ultimate price point and speed at which we would like to be able to conduct genomic research and the ability to have individuals have their [DNA] sequenced as well.”

NABsys, founded in 2004 by Brown physics professor Xinsheng Sean Ling, has had a relatively long journey to its first-round financing. Bready explains that the development of the sequencing technology was accelerated after the firm acquired sequencing startup GeneSpectrum in 2007. In the deal, NABsys gained access GeneSpectrum’s hybridization technology (which involves attaching probes to the DNA molecules) and its algorithms used to reconstruct the DNA sequence, he says. Also, GeneSpectrum co-founder John Oliver joined NABsys as vice president of research and development, and has helped advance the technology to a stage at which venture investors are willing to support the company.

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